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Old 27th February 2024, 04:02 AM   #1
M ELEY
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Default Revolutionary War era clasp knife

Here we have a truly massive specimen! This clasp knife (or penny knife, jack knife, folder, etc) was the kind carried in the 18th c. and earlier by both sailors, soldiers, frontiersmen, explorers, etc for centuries. They were primarily a tool, but could easily be used as a weapon in a pinch (Spanish Albecete clasp knives in particular, which ranged in size up to truly lethal lengths and were often associated with deadly knife dueling!).

This specimen measures 4" closed, with the blade measuring just under 3". For similar examples, please see Neumann's 'Swords and Blades of the American Revolution', Gilkerson's 'Boarders Away', and Wilbur's 'Pirates & Patriots of the American Revolution'. Gilkerson, in particular, brings up that these tiny knives were sometimes used in violent mutinies and killings aboard ships. For the most part, they were tools used to splice rope, whittle scrimshaw or other similar functions. One will note this one has a 'spike' tool as well, which could also have many uses (perhaps cleaning out congealed powder or dirt from a flintlock pan.)

The construction on these early pieces were very simple, with a pin contruction holding the two pieces of fluted horn grip together. Note the fancy 6-sided finial, which I suppose is just decorative? In comparison, I've included a British naval fighting dirk with, ahem, 'bone grips', also in a fluted pattern.
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Old 27th February 2024, 01:41 PM   #2
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Default Of course, there are different opinions on these...

I would be remiss if I didn't mention that others don't always agree that these knives were ever allowed on ships. I personally think that the smaller types might have been allowed, if NOT on treasure ships or (strict) naval vessel, at least merchantmen and undoubtedly Privateers/pirate vessels. Gikkerson in particular lists numerous accounts of actual events involving clasps used for the wrong reasons. Hopefully, for the mot part, these knives led ordinary existences as a sailor's best tool. Many of them were flat at the end (no point), so they mot certainly could have doubled as shaving razors. Likewise, landlubbers such as soldiers, craftsmen, explorers, etc, would have found them most useful. It can also be said that Native Americans also sometimes traded in them and examples have been found/dug up at tribal sites. See 'Indian Trade Relics' by Lar Hothem for examples.


http://www.vikingsword.com/vb/showth...reasure+Fleets

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Old 27th February 2024, 03:49 PM   #3
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This is a remarkable and esoteric topic Capn! and thank you for adding the alternate views on the viability and restrictions that were at hand in these times toward them.

I would agree on your take on allowance (or simply overlooking) the use of these small knives on vessels as important personal utilitarian tools. As with virtually any object that can be classified as a 'weapon of opportunity', it is impossible to ban or restrict everything.

I have always thought that these folding blade knives were distinctly associated with sailors, hence the term 'jack knife'. But I guess its more complicated than that. The term jack, which I thought referred to sailors (cf. 'jack tar) but apparently the term 'jack' is much older and broader, from middle English to mean a common fellow. There was the old term 'jakke' also for 'a mechanical device', and folding blade knives appear to have far older origins.

The descriptions of the character of these knives, as in this excellent example
with the augmenting tool features such as the spike. Tools/weapons on ships were multi featured as utility use was the primary function in real time, while as required, they were weapons. The 'cutlass' was probably used about 90% of the time as a tool for clearing deck debris, as well as ashore to clear brush. The serrations on the backs of blades as well as the teeth in the axes are good examples.

While collecting 'jack knives' is a genre of its own and of course these are seldom deemed weapons (despite the classification in the security protocols of today)...however these would have certainly had the ability for such use in close quarters as on ships.

Wonderful context alongside that perfect example dirk also!!!
VERY nice Capn!
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Old 27th February 2024, 09:24 PM   #4
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Thank you, Jim, for responding on this one. I was also under the assumption that the word 'jack knife' came from the nautical term 'Jack Tar'. Of coure, it makes sense that the original meaning to the name is much older, as these simple knife-types could span back many generations before Age of Fighting Sail. I'm just wondering when the first 'folder' came about versus a traditional fixed blade. Middle Ages? I'll have to do some research there.

I'm in full 'stubborn' agreement that these little examples were used by 'tars' are ships. The thought of banning such a versatile and tiny tool seems moot for the most part. First off, in the event of a mutiny, a good belay pin, grappling hook, oakum calker, sharpened fid or marlin pike/gaff would do just as well in a pinch. Secondly, a 3" bladed folding knife would never stand up to Royal Marines armed with muskets or midshipmen armed with fighting dirks. There'd be no contest there. Interestingly, most of the mutinies I've read of usually either involve the higher ranks, who already have access to weapons or the locker (Spencer Christian, anyone?) or the lower ranks seeking to 'lure' the officers/captain into a corner in ambush, in which case, even a bucket or piece of rope will do the trick. In any case, I'm happy with this little clasp and think it is a good representative piece for the collection.
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Old 29th February 2024, 01:05 PM   #5
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Capn,
On the topic of small knives such as 'jack knives', navaja and such, it was not about use in combat situations, but more at a baser level with personal disputes.
Such weapons were personal, typically concealed or considered utility items however likely to be used in the kinds of situations arising between men in confined circumstances. Case in point, the 'shiv' or 'shank' in prisons.

These personal small knives might be obtained in almost any number of situations by sailors, and as such might have come from virtually many forms circulating in the many cultural spheres these men experienced.
Like most maritime tools and weapons, there were not certain regulations or standards with these, but certain conventions and requirements existed obviously for functionality and durability.

The folding knife indeed has been around long into earlier history, but that needs of course far more research in a more specific discussion.

These are just my thoughts on this, and again, what I consider a most intriguing little knife, and its possible manner of use if found in a maritime context.
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Old 29th February 2024, 08:42 PM   #6
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What a great historical object M Eley, not many of these utility knives survive this long, given their hard working life. To top it, the ocean environment is especially rough on gear.

I agree that this was almost certainly a sailors' knife, the marlin spike being equally as useful to a sailor as the blade (for un-doing knots and other tasks where a bit of leverage helps).

Given the extra decorative features on the knife it's possible that it belonged to a more seniour member of the (civilian?) crew and hence why it managed to survive this long.
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Old 1st March 2024, 03:24 AM   #7
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Default Ceylon

I think you guys are going down the wrong road with this one.

http://www.vikingsword.com/vb/showpo...4&postcount=19
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Old 1st March 2024, 03:52 AM   #8
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Rick View Post
I think you guys are going down the wrong road with this one.

http://www.vikingsword.com/vb/showpo...4&postcount=19
Perfect match, well spotted Rick.
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Old 1st March 2024, 04:48 AM   #9
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I'm a bit surprised as we have seen many examples of this utensil over the years in the Ethno Forum.

I think it is interesting that the Sheeps Foot pattern is seen on almost all modern folding rigging knives. Pretty hard to stab someone (or oneself) with that blade profile.

Gilkerson also shows (p.130) in Boarders Away a sheath knife with the point cut off to a 90 degree angle.
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Old 1st March 2024, 12:13 PM   #10
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Most interesting in seeing this curious example revealed as a scribes knife from these Indian regions!
My question would be, is it not feasible that sailors in ports of call in the East might have encountered such items in their trade experiences, and seen potential use in their on board circumstances?

Obviously the blade alone would be useful for many of the things done by sailors (including whittling etc.) in other than required tasks involving the rigging and elements of same. While not something ascribed (no pun intended) to the normal items of maritime use, something I personally have noticed in the pawn shops of ports of call, is the affinity of sailors for exotica and novelties from their many visits to unusual places.

On that basis, this knife, and perhaps others like it, might fall into the category of maritime novelty, if only tenuously. Whatever the case, it is a most interesting example of an item not commonly seen, but certainly well known as per described by Rick.

Just how late did the use of palm leaves as a medium for record keeping continue in these areas from India into other SE Asian regions? If it ceased in say, first part of 19th c. with printing, paper etc. could this form of these knives (with the fixture at top and fluting) be deemed 18th c.?

Also, with this type of pointed blade, rather than the blunted or rebated blades of the rigging tools described, would this kind of knife either with use of the blade or even the 'spike' not become a 'weapon of opportunity?
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Old 2nd March 2024, 04:16 AM   #11
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Default Foiled again!

Actually, I had a heads-up from another well respected Forum member of my error just prior to Rick pointing out my monumental mistake. The strange thing is I do frequent the Ethno side, but I guess I just never saw one of these East Indian types before. Jeez! Well, it won't be my first or last error in judgement (I remember getting a lesson on a piece I thought was colonial American, but ended up being 19th c. African.) Sigh, but I am glad that this Forum exists to point out such misjudgments and I do appreciate everyone who came in on this one.

I sill stick to the fact, though, that this isn't an obvious mistake! Many of the early clasps/jack knives highly resemble this style. In at least one book I have of 'American Revolution' sketches of weapons, this type above is erroneously shown. Several of those in Neumann's are likewise possibly questionable.

Thank you Jim and Radboud for your comments and also good questions. Could a piece like this still have seen maritime use? So very similar to the penny knives of Europeans and certainly of a use on merchant ships (cargo lists and journal entries requiring quill pens and such), it seems very plausible. Not to mention the long maritime history of India, the associations with the British and Dutch EIC, piracy off the coast of Malabar, etc, etc. Still not what I had hoped for, but an interesting piece that has generated some great conversation! Thanks!
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Old 2nd March 2024, 05:31 AM   #12
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The first folding knives date to the Iron Age 500 or 600 BCE approximately.
The spike on these knives would probably only be useful for breaking knots in twine or the blade for cutting a plug of tobacco.
Certainly, more than one was brought back from the Far East by sailors and used in a different way than originally intended. Many of these had the body that held the stylus and knife made from Ivory, thus making them even more desirable to own.

Wikipedia has a large section on the use of these tools.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palm-leaf_manuscript
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Old 2nd March 2024, 11:05 PM   #13
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Thank you, Rick, for this excellent info and I also forgot to thank you for the positive ID on this one. I'm not feeling as bad about it now. Lesson learned and I think this is at least an old one.
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Old 3rd March 2024, 05:16 PM   #14
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In ongoing research on this intriguing old knife/stylus, there are certain inherent qualities that render it having maritime possibility, despite not being an item specifically for such context. The mere fact that these were clearly diffused through SE Asia, Malaysia and East Indies of course suggests they were indeed aboard trade vessels through these networks.

Aboard ships, especially pirate and privateer vessels with their own autonomy rather than stenrict regulation, the clever eye of the sailor, regardless of what flag he sailed under, was keen and innovative. These would likely have been seen as a 'novelty', and primarily as a folding knife alone......however the stylus, in essence a spike, while having utilitarian measure......would be deadly if used as a close quarters weapon. Not as much in combat, as in stealth, a stab in key location would be mortal. Naturally, these kinds of matters would escape any sort of record as the typical chroniclers of this history would not usually have such information.

Carl Sagan once observed, it is not so much the study of written history that needs attention, but that of 'unwritten' history, where many answers and secrets are to be found. This is perhaps badly paraphrased, but it is the idea I took from it.
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Old 4th March 2024, 05:49 PM   #15
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Hello Jim and thank you for your valuable perspective. I'm feeling a lot less 'bummed out' about it now. Many of the items in my collection range from odd ethnographic pieces to New World colonial, bearing in mind that such items indeed were a part of the maritime world of trading, piracy and exotic 'goods'. I'll definitely do more research, though, the next time I decide to step out of my comfort zone (big edgy things) to buy something different (little folding edgy things)
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